Teachers, including Kristin VanBuskirk, center, a math teacher at Apex High School, rally against high turnover and low pay on the sidewalk in front of Apex High School on May 21, 2014. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com
Teachers, including Kristin VanBuskirk, center, a math teacher at Apex High School, rally against high turnover and low pay on the sidewalk in front of Apex High School on May 21, 2014. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

Education

Is North Carolina’s biggest teachers’ lobby breaking the law, or being targeted?

November 24, 2017 02:03 PM

RALEIGH

The largest group lobbying for North Carolina’s public schools appears to be violating state law, a Republican state legislator says.

However, the North Carolina Association of Educators says it believes the state is targeting its members unconstitutionally.

The allegations deal with money – specifically, the group’s ability to collect its membership dues from the paychecks of 6,402 teachers and other school employees who opt for that method of payment.

A years-long pursuit of the NCAE by the Republican-led legislature has so far cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars with little to show for it. The NCAE is a major donor to Democrats.

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What’s known is laid out in an audit the state released earlier this month.

The audit is supposed to find out how many members belong to groups and associations that lobby on behalf of state workers. Those types of groups can allow members to pay their dues by automatically deducting them from their paychecks, but state law has a cutoff.

Non-education groups like the State Employees Association of North Carolina have to have at least 2,000 members. But groups like the NCAE must have at least 40,000 members.

That higher requirement for the NCAE predates Republican leadership of the state legislature, although it’s unclear if state officials ever checked on these groups’ membership before the GOP took charge.

The legislature started requiring the audits in 2014, after a different Republican-backed law targeting the NCAE was struck down in court as unconstitutional. But each year, the NCAE simply refuses to cooperate.

“... It certainly appears NCAE is refusing to respond because it does not meet the requirement and is violating the law,” Republican Sen. Ralph Hise said in an email.

Hise is a critic of the NCAE who was a driving force behind the audit requirement.

The NCAE says it doesn’t have to comply with the audit.

“The NCAE believe the law as written and being implemented by the state Auditor is overly intrusive in violation of the constitutional rights of the association and its members and further exceeds the authority of the state Auditor,” the group wrote in a letter to state officials earlier this year.

State Auditor Beth Wood’s office agrees that it can’t force the NCAE to do anything.

“We do not have the authority to compel NCAE to turn over this information because, as a private entity, NCAE does not fall under the authority of the State Auditor,” the audit says.

Wood is a Democrat. A database maintained by the National Institute on Money in State Politics doesn’t show any contributions to her campaigns by the NCAE.

So far, the NCAE’s refusal to comply with the audits hasn’t led to any legal action or other punishment. The audits, meanwhile, have taken up hundreds of hours of time at the auditor’s office.

This year’s audit, which was the fastest and cheapest yet, took 230 hours at a cost of $23,690.

Political retaliation?

The start of the audits in 2014 wasn’t the first recent attempt by legislators targeted at the NCAE.

One of the very first things GOP lawmakers did after gaining control of the state legislature in 2011 was take away the NCAE’s ability to use automatic deductions for dues.

However, in 2013 a judge ruled that unconstitutional.

That law violated the group’s right to free speech and was “retaliatory viewpoint discrimination,” according to the ruling by Wake County Superior Court Judge Paul Gessner.

But Hise wants to take another crack at getting rid of automatic payroll deductions. And this time he doesn’t want to target only the NCAE. Instead, he wants to ban every group from using the process.

“I believe the best solution to ensure a private group stops breaking the law is to eliminate this carve-out altogether, which is why I sponsored a bill to do so that passed the Senate during the long session and why I encourage the House to take it up next year,” he said.

These automatic deductions are lucrative, since they’re more likely to come through than payments that people have to remember to make each period.

If Hise’s bill passes, tens of thousands of state employees belonging to a dozen or more lobbying groups would be affected.

Union membership down

The NCAE is an affiliate of the National Education Association, the national teacher’s union which reports having 32,918 North Carolina members in the 2015-16 school year.

That’s an 8.6 percent decline from the year before. And according to Mike Antonucci, who writes about unions for the education website The 74 Million, the NEA’s membership in North Carolina has dropped more than 40 percent in the last five years.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the NCAE’s membership has dropped by a similar amount, since the two groups are separate. But across the country, union participation has been on the decline for decades.

Financial statements from the NCAE also don’t clear up the membership mystery.

Since it’s a nonprofit, parts of its annual tax returns are public. The NCAE had just over $7 million in revenue in 2016, including about $4.8 million from dues.

If the group had exactly 40,000 dues-paying members, that would mean it collected an average of $120.11 per person.

That’s less than what it cost for full-time ($247) or part-time ($123.50) school employees to join in the 2016-17 school year. That doesn’t necessarily mean the NCAE doesn’t have 40,000 members. The group also has a number of other membership options, with annual dues as low as $25.

Either way, membership appears to be dropping: The NCAE’s dues revenue in 2016 was down by more than $1 million from 2014, when it collected $5.9 million in dues.

Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran

How many workers join?

While the NCAE’s membership numbers remain a mystery to the public, most of the groups contacted by the state auditor did cooperate.

Here are the membership totals they reported. Take those numbers with a grain of salt, because the state has no way of double-checking to see if their answers are accurate. However, the state can verify how many members of each group pay their dues through automatic deductions.

Some of the larger groups:

State Employees Association of NC: 50,849 members – 27,493 on payroll deduction

NC Association of Educators: Membership unknown – 6,402 on payroll deduction

Professional Educators of NC: 4,227 members – 1,017 on payroll deduction

Southern States Police Benevolent Association: 10,272 members – 3,480 on payroll deduction

NC Troopers Association: 2,084 members – 1,377 on payroll deduction

NC Public Service Workers Union: 5,342 members – 616 on payroll deduction